Why Some People Will Still Be in Blackface This Halloween

A black and white photo of children in Blackface

Halloween is coming! It's about to be that special time when a slew of drunk 20-somethings usurp entire cultures for laughs.

Cultural appropriation is what happens when dominant culture misrepresents elements of a subjugated cultural group. It's deeply sadly deeply entrenched — not just for our generation, but throughout history. As millennials, we are more educated and better exposed to globalism. Since we have the educational resources, why do we persist with the Native American headbands?

Historically, minstrel shows were widely used to present negative stereotypes of African Americans to a predominantly white audience. White performers would dress in "black face," shuckin’ and jivin’ for entertainment. Blacks were presented as ignorant, sassy, and lazy. 

As African Americans were able to gain access to the entertainment industry, they, too would dress in blackface, but for lesser pay than their white counterparts. Fast-forward to this century, and the same behaviors take place now: Trinidad James is perhaps the most glaring example.

Today, cultural appropriation is easy to write off because its embellished to such an extreme it's almost a joke. Miley Cyrus' VMA performance was so outlandish, that a comprehensive discussion about the cultural appropriation of her black dancers almost felt unnecessary. 

And this is how cultural appropriation prevails. We don't talk about it, and it carries on, fueled by youthful ignorance and the unwillingness to recognize how damaging these cultural caricatures actually are.

Part of it is media. We often see incorrect cultural messages in a diluted context and then watch as the offending musician or newspaper claims innocence, thus stopping the dialogue before it even starts. We are keen to dismiss appropriation as "bad taste." For example, a racial discussion about how Patrice Wilson and Alison Gold misrepresented Chinese and Asian culture in "Chinese Food" seems like a waste of time because the song and video are so obviously terrible. 

Seasoned media veterans (like music and television moguls) surmise that young people are not ready, willing, or able to denounce cultural appropriation. And young people play into that idea by denying the realities that racial history still translates today.

But social media is reshaping how we spread our ideas. Almost everyone with internet access has a platform to express themselves without the specter of obscene profit in a suffocating corporate space. Now, webseries like Awkward Black Girl bring black millennial female culture to a diverse audience, and does it without relying on inappropriate caricatures.

The internet is changing the basic way the entertainment industry functions — though not all for the better. Netflix created the popular show Orange is the New Black, a series that uniquely addresses gender, class, and sexuality in prison. And though the show brings new life to how social issues are portrayed in popular media, cultural appropriation persists: black prisoners are "ghetto" or mentally unsound, Latinas are gossip queens, and the white crowd is relatively "normal" (save for the Bible thumpers).

While it's true that Orange is clever and deserving of praise, more attention must be given to the appropriation that is still brazenly evident, even within a progressive context .

Millennials from all cultural groups need to regain their cultural awareness by understanding how cultural appropriation translates into our behavior and is exacerbated by media stereotypes. We must become literate in racial language and imagery in order to reevaluate the messages that we're sent.

Halloween — with it's "ethnic" costume opportunities — just brings out what's been hiding in plain sight all along.